CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wisc.—This small town in the rural center of the state should be Sean Duffy's turf, and he acts like it is. Duffy, a Republican district attorney from the far north of the rambling 7th Congressional District, is facing Julie Lassa, a Democratic state senator from its southeastern end, in Tuesday's election. When he and Lassa take the stage in front of four student moderators in the Chippewa Falls High School cafeteria, she stiffly thanks them before saying she was raised on a farm and noting (as she will often over the next hour) that Duffy wants to outsource jobs to China.
Duffy doesn't swing back. Instead, he lays on the charm. "Paulie, happy birthday!" he tells one moderator. "I hear you're 18 today. You can vote on November 2. Also, I've got somewhat of a fond history with Chi-Hi. I used to play hockey, and we had a nice rivalry with you." He offers up a short bio: "I grew up doing lumberjack competitions and exhibitions. That's chopping, sawing, log-rolling, tree-climbing."
National Republicans would like these last few debates to be formalities. As far as they know, Duffy locked up this seat in May, when incumbent Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., pronounced himself "bone tired" and announced his retirement. Republicans saw Duffy as a rising star, and here was his opportunity.
So as he campaigned, he basked in national media attention based mostly on his roles in The Real Word: Boston and Road Rules. He met his future wife, Rachel Campos-Duffy, on Road Rules: All Stars, and today she's a professional pundit on all things conservative and motherhood-related. * His TV ads have played on his professional lumberjack past. In one he chops "the big spending in Washington" with an ax; in another, he runs on a log and knocks off a "professional politician." In both ads he is wearing flannel.
On Monday night it's impossible to forget that Duffy's been in the spotlight for most of his life. Lassa is 40, Duffy is 39, but the debate goes off like a scene from some 1980s college movie in which the fraternity president outsmarts the dean. She clings tightly to talking points, repeatedly saying Duffy supports "policies that send our good-paying jobs overseas." She has notes and uses them. Duffy just talks. She says again that Duffy fails to realize that Wisconsin is losing jobs because of bad trade deals and "tax breaks that ship our jobs overseas." Duffy shakes his head and makes with the folksy.
"They're packin' up and goin' elsewhere because they can't do business in Wisconsin!" he says. "If you talk to businesses, they say: 'We're not leaving because of the workers in Wisconsin. We're leaving because of policies in Madison.' And Sen. Lassa has a leading role in developing those policies that make Wisconsin one of the worst places in the country to do business."
The student questioner stumbles a bit in an attempt to ask Lassa a follow-up. Lassa doesn't seem sure how to answer it, either.
"Certainly we need to, just like the Department of Commerce has recommended"—new sentence—"is for their paper products that are coming here, a 115 percent tariff, because they are unfairly competing against us"—new sentence—"but also the policies dealing with currency manipulation."
This is a polite crowd. The only time they laugh is when Duffy makes them; he has a habit of smiling and saying "I'm done" when he finishes his answers.
Duffy's appeal isn't just personal, of course. In another year, voters could face the same choice—the Republican breezily handling questions, the Democrat clinging to the podium like a life raft—and Democrats wouldn't be worried. But in 2010, all Duffy has to do is remind voters of how bad things are. What Lassa has to do is convince a critical mass of Democrats and independents that they should direct their anger at trade agreements and the possible Republican threat to Social Security.
That's not enough for some angry swing voters. Steve Gilbertson, a retired army officer from Chippewa Falls, says he came to the debate with an open mind, having voted for Democrats in plenty of elections, although he backed John McCain in 2008. "We need to reduce spending, and we need to tax everyone equally." He repeats himself. "Everyone, equally. She wants to tax the rich and not the poor, and that doesn't work. I was disappointed, you know, because the NRA had rated her so high. She lost my vote tonight."
This drives Democrats crazy. They see Duffy as glib and superficial, expert at delivering a bold statement about how Wisconsin needs jobs as if he has a Green Lantern ring to will them into existence.
"He acted like he could do anything," says Mary Kelly, a Lassa supporter. "Just say the word 'jobs' and they're created. He didn't give me any indication that he would make hard decisions, which is what being a legislator means."
Ironically, Democrats used to have a candidate who actually could do that. His name was David Obey. He voted the way the NRA wanted as he shoveled money to the district and loudly registered his outrage at whatever the Democrats were screwing up that day. As the chairman of the Appropriations Committee who pushed through the stimulus, he raged at the White House for "stupid mistakes" that convinced the public that the bill was a boondoggle.
Even here, in Obey's district, you can find examples of how little confidence people have in the stimulus. "You hear about another wasteful project every week!" says Sandy Kenner, a retiree who moved to the area from Illinois. "What was the last one? Something about studying mice in California. Something ridiculous." She adds that the government could—and should—save a lot of money by defunding NPR.
But these are the reasons Obey quit this year. In his resignation letter, he warned that politics had become too small to get anything done.
"I am, frankly, weary of having to beg on a daily basis that both parties recognize that we do no favor for the country if we neglect to make the long-term investments in education, science, health, and energy that are necessary to modernize our economy and decline to raise the revenue needed to pay for those crucial investments," Obey wrote. "I do not want to be in a position as Chairman of the Appropriations Committee of producing and defending lowest common denominator legislation that is inadequate to that task and, given the mood of the country, that is what I would have to do if I stayed."
Was Obey wrong? At a key moment in the Chippewa Falls debate, Lassa attacks Duffy for voicing his support, at times, for Rep. Paul Ryan's "roadmap," a long-term budget plan that would slash entitlement spending. Duffy challenges her to describe the plan, and she reverts to a basic explanation of who Ryan is and why the plan is a threat to Social Security. Duffy goes for the jugular.
"When she's asked what Paul Ryan's plan is, she goes back to her talking point," he says. "It's the same thing over and over that she regurgitates. This is just a campaign gimmick that she's using."
After the debate, a student who'd been handing out programs at the door of the cafeteria approaches Duffy to get his copy signed. He needs a signature to get class credit. I ask him if he's going to get Lassa to sign it, too. "Naah," he says. He goes back to talk to Duffy.
Correction, Nov. 2, 2010: This article originally misstated that Duffy met his future wife on The Real World: Boston. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)